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Whenever I hear another pimply teenager being hyped as a blues guitar god, I am skeptical. Fact is, most kids who shoulder a guitar strap can play a few blues riffs, but it's the rare teen who's capable of complex articulation with his instrument.
Not to say that prodigies don’t arise every decade or so. Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been acclaimed by so many blues experts, including the venerable B. B. King, that my expectations were elevated for his third album.
Unfortunately, Live On is a big disappointment. It's a slick classic-rock release certain to be misrepresented as a real blues album. Furthermore, the production by former Talking Head Jerry Harrison is so cloying, the music here doesn’t stand a chance. Live On isn’t a live album, either, despite its title. Too bad, because the songs would have benefited from the spontaneous give and take of a concert performance.
In fairness, the songs here aren’t awful. Shepherd’s band is adequate if unspectacular, and the guest musicians are top-flight (James Cotton, Dr. John, Warren Haynes, Les Claypool, and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s old rhythm section). Shepherd clearly has some talent, and at age 22, he’s thankfully moved past the teenage-phenom stage. But the production is so murky it squeezes the life out of the music.
The title track is typical. A bombastic slow-blues piece, "Live On" boasts a choir of Mormon Tabernacle proportions that completely drowns out the musicians. Other cuts are hampered by clashing guitars, to the point where it’s hard to make out who’s playing what. There’s a kind of a mechanical undertone throughout, even on great blues-rock tunes like Buddy Miles’ "Them Changes" and Peter Green's "Oh Well." The hard-rocking originals "Shotgun Blues" and "Wild Love" are more successful, but even they would sound much better live.
Shepherd models his playing after Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, worthy idols both. But emulation is Shepherd’s liability: He’s a moderately clever imitator, nothing more. It doesn’t help that singer Noah Hunt seems to clone Hendrix’s voice.
To these ears, Jeff Healey and Robin Trower were superior Hendrix wannabes. Shepherd still has plenty of time to make his mark, but I suggest that he find a producer with a rootsier feel.